Demonstrators raising slogans at the Singhu border protest site as the farmers’ agitation continues in New Delhi on Thursday. (Sanjeev Verma/HT)
Demonstrators raising slogans at the Singhu border protest site as the farmers’ agitation continues in New Delhi on Thursday. (Sanjeev Verma/HT)

Don’t force farm laws, let states decide for themselves

India is big and diverse. The solution is to allow states to legislate on this subject, as agriculture and marketing are in the state list under the Constitution
By BR Bajaj
PUBLISHED ON FEB 04, 2021 07:51 PM IST

Over the last six months, so much has been said and written about the farmers’ agitation consequent to the enactment of the new farm bills, that I was wondering if anything more can be said for the bureaucrats and politicians engaged in defence of the farm bills that will make them understand that they are grossly wrong. It is not understood what is it that the government will lose if these laws are not implemented. Where is the urgency to implement something whose outcome is not easy to quantify?

The government has been trying to convince people that these laws will help in attracting private investment in the agriculture sector, which will increase the farmer’s income. To achieve the goal to double farmer’s income will depend on multiple factors such as the size of farm holding, nature of crop, productivity levels and marketing facilities. This can never happen by one-size-fits-all farm laws. And there are millions of farmers who are not convinced.

In fact, the farmers are agitating seeking the repeal of these laws as they feel the new laws will ensure that the present system of assured minimum support price will collapse, leading to the exploitation of the farmers at the hands of the private players.

Ensure MSP for oilseeds, pulses and other crops

The Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act was enacted in Punjab in 1961, with a view to regulate sale, purchase, storage and processing of agricultural produce. Those were the times when India faced acute food shortages. When the Green Revolution started in Punjab, the central government was looking to build up food reserves and prevent shortages. This was followed by the minimum support price for wheat in 1966 and later for other crops. Over a period of time, the infrastructure created under the APMC Act, combined with MSP for wheat and paddy, not only reduced the shortages but created surpluses. Punjab and Haryana have been feeding the nation since the Green Revolution. In fact, paddy, which was never a traditional crop in Punjab and Haryana, has become one the main crops only because of MSP.

Today, one of the undisclosed reasons for the enactment of the new farm laws is to bring down production of wheat and paddy and consequently reduce the burden of procurement. It is no secret that the central government has not been able to handle the surpluses in wheat and paddy. The new farm laws unfortunately are no solution to this. The solution lies in ensuring MSP and assured procurement for oilseeds, pulses and other crops where the government depends on imports. The farmer is willing to cultivate other crops in lieu of wheat and paddy, provided the returns on investment are assured through MSP and procurement.

What is important is to understand that while there may be different views on this subject, one thing which should be clear to all policy makers in Delhi, is, that no immediate revolution is going to take place if the farm laws are implemented. The abstract concepts such as the new farm laws will open up new avenues for the farmers to increase their income, or the freedom to the farmer to sell to anyone and anywhere etc are concepts which do not ensure MSP. On the contrary, if these laws are not implemented, the policy makers can review the other options available, like devising schemes for assured MSP and procurement for crops other than wheat and paddy. The rural infrastructure created in Punjab and Haryana from income generated under APMC, has contributed to the overall development of these states, and hence should be the model.

Enhance PDS, subsidise foodgrain exports

India is big and diverse. Kerala does not have APMC or MSP, because it is not required in a state where most of the land is under coffee, rubber or coconut plantations, and the paddy produced in Kerala is for local consumption. The solution, therefore, is to allow the states to legislate on this subject, as agriculture and marketing are in the state list under the Constitution. The central government enacted these laws considering itself competent under entry 33 of the concurrent list which relates to trade.

The Supreme Court may adjudicate, if the matter comes up before it. However, there is no reason why the states should not have the freedom to choose to follow the farm laws or not, depending on the requirements and circumstances of each state. Since MSP for wheat and paddy is mostly relevant to Punjab, Haryana and a few other states, the existing system should continue. To deal with the surpluses, the central government should enhance the public distribution system and subsidise exports of foodgrains. This will bring stability in agriculture production and allow the poor segment of society to a little better access to subsidised foodgrains. We should not forget that if all Indians had the purchasing power of citizens of western countries, there would be no surplus grain in India. Since the whole world subsidises for their farmers, let’s not deprive our farmers, who in any case are the poorest in the world.

Private investment in agriculture welcome

In the long run, private investment in agriculture is welcome. However, the final test of any policy is determined by the outcome in terms of who gains and who loses. In the present scenario, while the government claims that the farmer will gain, it is the farmer who thinks the opposite. Why should then the government force a law, particularly in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, where it has been seen that there are no takers for these laws. Let the states decide for themselves. That is the only solution.

brbajaj@gmail.com

BR Bajaj (HT Photo)
BR Bajaj (HT Photo)
BR Bajaj (HT Photo)
BR Bajaj (HT Photo)
BR Bajaj (HT Photo)
BR Bajaj (HT Photo)

The writer is a retired Punjab-cadre IAS officer. Views expressed are personal

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